Longform

Hard Life, Hard Death

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Police view the U-Haul episode as odd and suspicious, and say they believe the suspects were exhibiting a consciousness of guilt. But the truck search provided no smoking guns.

Nancy was starting to express doubts about her husband's innocence. She told Newcomer that Lee was having recurring nightmares about Amber Bass.

"In one dream, Amber is crying out, 'Help me,'" the detective wrote. "Nancy told me that, whoever hurt Amber, she wants them to pay. She added that, even though she loves Lee, if it was him, she wants him to pay."

It became clear in the weeks after Amber Bass' death that detectives hadn't connected enough dots to make arrests.

"Amber couldn't talk anymore, but she told me some things," Don Newcomer says. "She told me through all of her screaming and crying that she was a very sick little girl and that someone had hurt her badly. We had a wild series of events and excellent suspects, but no confessions or directly self-incriminating statements. What we had was frustrating."

By May 1994, the suspects in Amber's death had gone their separate ways. (The Hugheses' divorce became final in 1995.) Lee was living with a friend, Nancy was staying with her mother, and Fran Rogers had vanished.

Linda Rhea's children were in foster care, as were Nancy Hughes' two children.

The state of Arizona has adopted a federal policy that mandates "reasonable efforts" to reunify wayward parents and their children. But on occasion, the state asks the courts to sever a person's legal rights to a child, and to approve that child's adoption.

The severance process is tedious, with the parents in question being offered counseling services, classes and other efforts geared toward reunification. Many parents also undergo psychological testing before the court decides what to do.

By mid-1994, state Child Protective Services officials were making preliminary decisions about Nancy Hughes' children, Christopher and Cassandra.

On May 6, 1994, an assistant attorney general representing CPS questioned Lee Hughes in the presence of his lawyer. Lee later gave Linda Rhea a copy of the transcript, in an envelope on which he wrote, "Read with caution."

"When was the very first time that you noticed anything wrong with Amber at all?" assistant attorney general Patricia Trebesch asked Lee Hughes.

"The morning of the 14th."
That claim was absurd. Later in the 57-page document, Lee conceded he had taken Amber to doctors "four or five times" in the month she lived with him.

"It was extremely hard to keep Amber well. She had a very low tolerance to fighting off sicknesses. For Amber to get a cold, it could kill her," Lee said.

Trebesch then asked Lee a crucial question.
"Do you have any idea how Amber could have sustained massive trauma to the vaginal or anal area?"

"Absolutely none."
In July 1994, clinical psychologist Bruce Kushner interviewed Lee Hughes as the state's parental-rights investigation continued.

Lee again denied having seen any blood in the bathwater when he'd placed Amber in the tub: "If there had been any signs of blood in that water, I would have seen it."

Wrote Kushner: "[Lee] noted that he has been cleared by the police of any responsibility . . ."

That wasn't true, as a state caseworker noted in a 1995 report: "It is still unknown who is responsible for [Amber's] death, although Detective Newcomer has stated that all adults involved in the case are suspects."

Lee also faced separate accusations from Christopher and Cassie that he'd physically abused them and Nancy.

Kushner's conclusions did not bode well for Lee's chances at rearing the children: "Mr. Hughes adamantly maintains that he had no knowledge of any abuse towards this child, and saw no evidence that the child had been bleeding. Given my understanding of the situation, this is apparently rather difficult to understand. At this point in time, returning the child [Cassandra] to Mr. Hughes' care does not appear warranted."

The courts still are edging toward severing Nancy and Lee's parental rights to Cassandra, who is now 6--despite the fact that in 1995, the courts, with CPS' concurrence, returned Christopher to his mother.

Far too many new child deaths have occupied police and prosecutors since Amber Bass died in 1994. But the authorities once immersed in her case haven't forgotten her.

Don Newcomer keeps his box of data on the case next to his desk. He occasionally pulls out a document or a photograph, hoping to see things with a fresh eye.

Prosecutor Dyanne Greer is circumspect, but practically leaps out of her chair when asked how badly she'd like to see justice served in the case.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin